Tens of thousands of people lined the main road into the capital, Kinshasa, to welcome Francis after he landed at the airport on Tuesday, some standing three or four deep, with children in school uniforms taking the front row.
A crowd of faithful then ran after the Pontiff's car that wound through working-class districts towards the presidential palace. Many of the women wore dresses and skirts made of pagne, a wax print fabric featuring images of Francis or other religious symbols.
Francis plunged headfirst into his agenda upon arrival, denouncing the centuries-long exploitation of Africa by colonial powers, today’s multinational extraction industries and the neighbouring countries interfering in Congo’s affairs that has led to a surge in fighting in the east.
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis said to applause in his opening speech to Congolese government authorities and the diplomatic corps in the garden of Kinshasa’s national palace.
Calling Congo’s vast mineral and natural wealth a “diamond of creation,” Francis demanded that foreign interests stop carving up the country for their own interests and acknowledge their role in the economic “enslavement” of the Congolese people.
“Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” said history’s first Latin American pope, who has long railed at how wealthy countries have exploited the resources of poorer ones for their own profit.
Francis had originally planned to visit the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, but had to cancel the stop due to the fighting that has forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Congo where already some 26.4 million people were facing hunger, according to the World Food Programme.
“When we heard that Pope Francis was no longer coming to our province of North Kivu, my husband and I decided to come all the way to Kinshasa to see and hear him,” said Jeanne Kahota. She said she was old enough to remember John Paul’s visit, but wasn’t able to follow it closely.
“That’s why we said to ourselves that this kind of appointment doesn’t happen every day, it’s exceptional and we didn’t want to miss it again.”
Fighting in eastern Congo, which has more than 120 armed groups, has simmered for years but spiked in late 2021 with the resurgence of the M23 group, which had been largely dormant for nearly a decade. The rebels have captured swaths of land and are accused by the United Nations and rights groups of committing atrocities against civilians.
Francis on Tuesday condemned the fighting and was to repeat his call for peace during his meeting with victims of the conflict. The appointment was to include a joint call for the victims to pardon their assailants, according to Vatican organisers.